With an unprecedented school year underway, federal officials are weighing in yet again on how educators ought to be serving students with disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. Department of Education issued two question-and-answer documents last week offering further clarification on how the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and other laws should be implemented while the nation grapples with the coronavirus.

The agency has now offered guidance at least a half-dozen times since March on how services for those with disabilities should proceed amid the pandemic. The Education Department said the latest information comes in response to inquiries it has received.

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Above all, federal officials used the new guidance as another opportunity to impress upon educators their continued responsibilities under IDEA.

“No matter what primary instructional delivery approach is chosen, (state educational agencies, school districts) and individualized education program (IEP) teams remain responsible for ensuring that a free appropriate public education (FAPE) is provided to all children with disabilities,” reads a Q&A document issued by the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services’ Office of Special Education Programs.

IEP teams should consider a variety of ways that services can be provided, particularly given that changing circumstances may force children to move between in-person, remote and hybrid schedules as the school year goes on, the Education Department said.

What’s more, in cases where extended school year services were not delivered over the summer because of the pandemic, schools should factor whether the offerings can be provided during the school year or during breaks or vacations, according to the guidance.

The agency’s special education office also addressed some procedural issues like who should attend IEP meetings, when the IEP amendment process can be utilized and considerations for both initial evaluations and reevaluations.

Meanwhile, a separate Q&A document from the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights indicates that schools may choose to prioritize in-person learning for students with disabilities, but whether or not such priority is required “will depend on an individualized determination of the student’s educational and disability-related needs.”

The civil rights office also clarified several points related to services provided under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and spelled out how schools should handle cases where students with disabilities are unable to wear face coverings.

Districts should “make reasonable modifications in their policies, practices or procedures — including any addressing the use of face coverings — when those modifications can be made consistent with the health, safety and well-being of all students and staff, and are necessary to avoid discrimination on the basis of disability,” the Q&A document indicates.

Like other guidance, the Education Department said that the newly-released documents do not establish any rights or policies, but simply serve as the agency’s interpretation of existing laws.

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